Supa Modo, Kenya’s submission to the 2019 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category, tells a tale of terminal illness, community, and the power of pretending. When there is nothing more the doctors can do for her, Jo (Stycie Waweru) is moved home from the hospital by her protective mother Kathryn (Marriane Nungo). Jo is obsessed with superheroes and action films, wishing for one power above all: the power of flight. A fan of the kung-fu and superhero films that were screened in the children’s ward, Jo dreams of creating and staring in a film of her own. Her older sister Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia) enlists friends and the wider community to convince the little girl that she has super powers, and as her health declines the community rally around the girl and her family in the true Kenyan spirit.
Shot on location in Nairobi and Kabuku Village, Limuru, Kenya, the film is both an emotive family drama and a celebration of community spirit. It is based on the story developed by director Likarion Wainaina and was co-written by Mugami Nthiga, Silas Miami, Wanjeri Gakuru and Kamau Wandung’u. The script was written initially in English and translated on set into a mix of KiSwahili, Kikuyu, and English by co-writer Silas Miami. Miami is a Kenyan photographer, writer, filmmaker, and musician based in Cape Town, South Africa. He kindly agreed to speak with Chelsea Haith for Africa in Words while the film tours the international film festival circuit ahead of the 2019 Oscars.
Supa Modo will be screening in London at the Film Africa Festival on the 4th of November.
Chelsea Haith: Let’s start with how the film came about and the writing process you all undertook.
Silas Miami: We were brought together under a writing workshop programme run by One Fine Day Films (a German Production company based in Kenya) and Ginger Ink Productions in Nairobi. Every year, over the past decade, the two, together with support from the German government and the DW Academie, have successfully run creative filmmaking workshops with the goal of producing films and developing filmmaking capacities and expertise across the country.
The film was first pitched to us by Likarion in the workshop (aptly named, the ‘Brain Room’). He had this long running visual of a young comic-book-obsessed-boy tuning into a superhero. We all responded extremely well to the concept and very soon after we formed a unit: a small team of writers trying to bring the story world to life.
CH: What was the thinking behind making the main character a little girl with dreams of being a superhero?
SM: We had actually written the film with a boy as the lead in mind. But the casting processes proved to be quite challenging. We knew we wanted a child who could embody very complex emotions. However, after auditioning nearly 500 young boys, we began to wonder what it would look like if we shifted the character and made her a girl.
The truth is, the girls were just so much better.
We found Stycie soon after: and thank the heavens we did. She will never understand just how much she meant to this whole project.
CH: What was the translation process like for you?
SM: Quite eye-opening. We had written the entire script in English so that our German teammates could follow the story. But we knew that the authenticity would have been lost if we had shot the film in English. We had very little time to do the translations and I’d often find myself adjusting the dialogue overnight during the shoot. The payoff was really worth it, though!
CH: How did you decide how to balance the languages in the film, especially since you were working with children but aiming the film at the international film festival circuit?
SM: We focused entirely on making the dialogue sound authentic: marketing considerations were not factored into it. There was a very real possibility that the whole movie would have ended up in Swahili or Kikuyu. Luckily, the split between all three felt very natural.
CH: Can you talk a little bit about the film’s reception at the various film festivals?
SM: It’s been phenomenally received. It opened at the Berlinale and while I wasn’t there, my co-writers who were tell me that everyone was in tears – that hasn’t stopped, months later.
I’ve watched the film a few times at several festivals, and the experience is still as magical as it was the first time I shared the work. How it resonates with so many people continues to surprise me.
CH: The film strikes a brilliant balance between the tragedy of Jo’s terminal cancer and the comedy in the various ways in which the community tries to help her family. How did you manage that balance and imbue it with Kenyan character?
SM: The first few iterations of the script were extremely dark. We thought that, because we were dealing with such a delicate and sensitive subject matter, we needed to be careful not to be irreverent. But it became clear to us that the only way to give the hard elements real impact was to filter them through the prism of comedy.
And nothing is more Kenyan than that: using humour to deal with trauma.
CH: The ‘power of pretending’ is a fairly consistent theme throughout the film. What do you think this reveals about the role of hope in tragic circumstances?
SM: Sometimes blind hope is all we’ve got. This whole ‘life’ thing is a real scam so we do what we need to do to make our lives and the lives of those whom we love and are in community with, just a little better. In turn, we find value in who we are. Sometimes blind hope is all we’ve got and that needs to be enough.
CH: The community in the film is fairly complex, and the script clearly takes some pot shots at critical religious mores, while also exploring family autonomy, women’s relationships across generations, and personal and collective grief. What did you want to achieve when writing the community as it appears in the film?
SM: We wanted to create a true reflection of the world we grew up in. These people and these spaces shaped us. And there are no easy boxes to put them in. It stands as an example of what a small town in Kenya looks like. Our hope is that it might help the world expand their understanding of the ‘African’ story. But beyond that, it’s a reminder for Kenyans – what makes us who we are is community. In all of its complexities.
CH: Is that something that you strive for in all of your work? Would you speak a little bit about what you’ve got forthcoming as well?
SM: I believe that all I do is hold up a mirror to society and ask questions without the expectation of getting any of them answered. I find that the stories I tell, ones that have been grounded in truth and an appreciation of human complexity, resonate more with audiences. I wrote another film for OFDF and Ginger Ink, Lusala, that’s currently in post-production. The story follows a young man’s struggle with mental health issues and we really grappled to find the right voice for it. Africans do not have the best track record when it comes to dealing with mental health issues and we needed to show that – even if it meant that a resolution would be thin.
We’re also currently in development for a Si-Fi set in a post-democratic South African set in the future where no foreigners are welcome. Suffices to say, we’re losing sleep over this one.
CH: What do you think the importance of a film like Supa Modo has for Kenyan representation at the Academy Awards?
SM: It expands the world’s perception of Africa: it challenges the single narrative. It shows everyone that storytelling through the medium of motion picture is universal and that , in this capacity, Kenyans have learnt how to tell their own stories – and tell them well.
CH: What do you hope to see in terms of development of the film industries on the continent in the next decade?
SM: I hope to develop a cinema-going culture specific to African stories. We need buy-in from our people. We need to find value in our stories – because they matter.
Silas Miami is a Cape-Town-based Kenyan performing artist, photographer, and filmmaker. His transition from music video production (many of them his own) into more linear narratives over the past few years has prepared and allowed him to tell more compelling and personal stories through motion picture. Silas has written several feature films that include the award-winning Supa Modo (2018) [Berlinale , TIFF] and Lusala (the highly anticipated final feature project from the One Fine Day family of movies – currently in post-production). He was also the continuity supervisor on both films and has subsequently written and directed several short films. He is currently developing his feature directorial debut, 2065, in partnership with the KZN Film Commission.